I got the idea for this new blog at the end of the week of New Wine, a Christian festival in Somerset, in August 2011. You might guess from my profile that, although not entirely house-bound, I don't very often get out, and it occurred to me that I might try to create a blog to encourage in our faith people like me whose lives are limited in one way or another. I'm hoping that readers will feel able to contribute their own positive ideas. I'm not sure how it will work, but here goes...!
Teach me, my God and King, in all things Thee to see...
I must apologise to readers of this blog. Having been asked to blog regularly for our local church, it is clear that I can no longer maintain three blogs, and so I am drawing this one to a close. I hope you will give me your blessing. On the whole the themes of this blog will be continued in The Cracked Pot Blog.
There's a fabulous post on the iBenedictines' blog today, called On the Holy Mountain. I hope Sister Catherine won't mind me quoting it in full.
From our monastery we look out towards the Black Mountains and the Brecons. They are a constant reminder that in scripture mountains are a privileged meeting-place between God and humankind. Today Isaiah 11 speaks of the holy mountain on which no hurt or harm will be done. It is a messianic vision, we say, pausing only to pull out our concordances and commentaries to extract every little nuance of meaning we can from the text. It is a prophecy of the end times, not really meant for here and now.
How wrong can we be! The holy mountain on which no hurt or harm is done should be the ground we tread every day of our lives. God wants to be known and loved now, not just hereafter. If we feel there is some block to this knowing, something that hinders us, we need to look at it and be prepared to change. We can be people of integrity, as Isaiah says. We can be ‘filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters swell the sea’ — if we wish. That is the crux of the matter. What do we really want? During this Year of Consecrated Life many people will be challenged to answer that question in a way they never thought possible, but it isn’t a question just for religious or clergy but every one of us. We are all called to know the promise of the gospel (Luke 10.21-24), all called to know the Lord. Amen!
You will have noticed that my blogs have gone quiet of late. I apologise for this. I haven't been idle nor ill-er than usual.
One new thing I have taken on is writing a blog for our refreshed parish website. I fear that this will be at the expense of this blog, and if you'd like to follow me on that here's the link: Michael's blog. I'm not intending to abandon this one entirely, but there's only so many words that two fingers and one slow brain can compose.
My parish blog will refer from time to time to parish life, but I intend to make it of wider interest - including looking at issues which concern what one politician might call "everyday" Christians! If you get there, please feel free to comment.
A week ago I lay in bed and listened to Thought for the Day, given by Vicky Beeching. As usual she was very down-to-earth. She was talking about our culture of success and activity, and quoted Henri Nouwen: "Being busy has become a status symbol."
"Nouwen suggests that instead of assuming time is simply there to be filled, we should purposefully leave some of it open. Unplanned. Unstructured. Available for spontaneity and imagination. He argues that by adding this into our lives, we become more flexible, compassionate and present.
"When every minute is scheduled to the hilt, interruptions are annoying. But by building in a margin of flexibility, we’re able to make time and space for others. Nouwen argues that when we do that, what previously would have seemed like 'interruptions' may turn out to be our most meaningful opportunities of the day – the chance to show hospitality to an unexpected visitor, to stop and help a lost person on the street, or just notice the beauty in the world around us.
"Of course time-management and productivity have an important place in our lives. But without balance they become unhealthy and unsustainable. In today’s society, leaving unstructured time in our schedules can feel like a countercultural act. Yet the rewards of renewed energy and imagination may make those times the most productive thing we do all week."
Now I'm inclined to fill my time, with social media, iPlayer, YouTube, music, reading and so on. That evening Jane read this verse to me where Jesus talks to the Samaritan woman, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink’, you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4). And I had the picture of rows of drinks cans. It struck me that I'm prone to fill myself with cans of spiritual fizzy drink, rather than living water. And I'm under no illusions which is better for me, which is the stuff of life. So I'm going to try again to provide space to let in some living water - or perhaps let it in and out. Just to be quiet with God.
PS Today Vicky was even more challenging in her Thought this morning, which isn't yet on line.
My old desk is going to a new home, and so I've been emptying all its drawers. It's been a fascinating exercise.
The contents have included my collection of postcards going back to my childhood and the diary of the year I proposed to Jane one July evening - on 8th August it simply says, "YES!!". There was the letter from my headteacher when I changed from teaching to ordination training - very complimentary about my contribution to the school and the community. There was the first page of a sermon I preached in a series where we made the script available. (I don't usually preach from a script.) It was, I thought as I read it with fresh eyes, rather promising, comparing the Bible to the letters I'd kept from Jane until we were married. The Bible, I said, was God's love letters to us, full of everyday life and gritty reality, with the occasional expressions of his passionate love. The analogy broke down, I said, in that I no longer need to read Jane's letters because we live together, but our divine marriage isn't yet consummated and so we need to read God's letters until we see him face to face. Sadly there was no page two of the sermon and so I don't know how I applied it. I hope I said something about the Holy Spirit helping us understand it. But having read it, I did think, "Maybe the congregation did get some sense out of me after all."
It encouraged me. I guess it's in my nature to question what I've done, to recall my failures and to view others as achieving so much more. So to see how the parish did develop (via notices and agendas and bits and pieces) over nearly twenty years was healthy. Most healing of all was to read letters and cards of appreciation from individuals saying how much I'd helped them. Interestingly a number were from after I was diagnosed with MND. I'd forgotten that.
I could just have dumped the entire desk contents in the wheelie bin - well, asked someone else to! - but I'm glad I didn't. I'm glad I went through it drawer by drawer. I suppose it could have been a melancholy way to spend a day and a half; but in fact it made me continually grateful. God has been good to me. I am now going to jettison most of what was in the desk. But I'm keeping a few things to remind myself, in case I need to, of God's faithfulness.
Remembering is a repeated theme in the Bible. When the people of Israel come across the Jordan into the promised land, they build a monument of twelve rocks. Joshua tells them, "When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do those stones mean to you?’then you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. When it passed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a memorial for ever.” And of course today Communion is a weekly act of remembering the ultimate declaration of God's love for us. We do this in remembrance of Him - until He comes!
I'm sorry to sound so metropolitan, but I really didn't expect what I heard a week ago on Sunday - in mid-Devon. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, as St Andrew's church in Cullompton has been consistent in giving memorable worship. The previous time, when the bluebells, stitchwort and campion were scattered in the hedgerows, three of the ten people who had been baptised the day before gave their testimonies - evidence that meeting the risen Christ does radically change lives.
However this most recent occasion was something else. The sermon was to be given by a Simon Friend. I knew he wasn't one of the clergy there. When he stood up at the front, I recognised him from our previous visits. "Just another member of the church," I thought. "Nice chap. Probably we're in for a few pious thoughts for the day." It's not what we got. You really need to listen to this: Simon Friend "How sins are forgiven".
I think it's one of the most thoughtful and challenging talks I've ever heard delivered in a church - and I've heard a few fair in my time! Don't be deceived by the very measured manner in which it's given. I could pile on the superlatives, but I really hope you will take the time to hear him out as he contrasts our "redemptive violence" with God's "redemptive grace". He challenges cultural, political and religious powers in a quietly prophetic way. He is utterly relevant and up-to-date, but in my view utterly faithful to Jesus as we see him in the gospels. And like the best preachers he applies it personally.
I hope when you've listened you'll agree that here is an amateur whom the professionals (like me) would do well to listen to and emulate. I suspect, however, that Simon would want to give the credit not to him but to the Holy Spirit, who was in my view speaking loud and clear that Sunday.
(PS When he refers to the Cully Gazette, I imagine he's talking about a mythical local journal.)
I hardly know where to start! Most churches have celebrated Pentecost and Trinity Sundays in the past few weeks. But it strikes me that the Holy Spirit nevertheless receives something of a raw deal, even though Pentecost is "His" festival, and since the 70s He has appeared much more in Christians' vocabulary.
There was once a widely used and mildly derogatory expression, "nominal Christians", meaning people who called themselves Christians but gave very little evidence of committed faith in practice. (The oft-reported decline in church attendance seems to me to be more a symptom of the increasing demands of real faith on nominal allegiance in a society drifting towards secularism.) I wonder whether today we are witnessing a new phenomenon of "nominal charismatics", ie Christians who talk about the Holy Spirit but who deny His reality and power.
In simple terms nominal charismatics refer to the Spirit as an inanimate "it", or "spirit" with a lower case s, implying something like "influence" or "character". The legacy that Jesus left behind was... his spirit, his influence, his example. The truth, as Jesus makes clear repeatedly, is much more than this, just as a person is much more that a shadow. The Holy Spirit is dynamic, active and above all personal. He is no less personal than God the Father and God the Son. (By the way, I use the masculine pronoun "He" as that's the habit of our Bible translations; but I'm equally at ease with the feminine "She", being equally personal - but never "it". God must be at least and more than personal, but never less.) His coming to the disciples at Pentecost demonstrated His power and interaction with people.
As this beautiful hymn by Irish musicians, Keith and Kristyn Getty, makes clear, the Holy Spirit is part of the mystery who is God: "Holy Spirit, Breath of God" with Kristyn & Keith Getty. Whatever else He is an active agent, not a passive possession. And so Jesus describes Him as a helper, a witness, a counsellor, a strengthener, a guide. I could go on, looking at what is sometimes known as The Acts of the Holy Spirit (Acts) and what Paul says about Him. I could relate how He impacted, unlooked for, my life. But I want to finish with what I recently found a helpful picture.
It starts, inappropriately, with my regular expeditions to the toilet. I am very unsteady on my feet and use a rollator (a wheeled zimmer). Getting into our toilet is a tricky operation, leaving my rollator outside and transferring precariously to grab-rails and trying awkwardly to turn round. Often I find hands steadying my waist at the point of greatest danger. Jane has glided up silently and unasked, and saves me from disaster. Occasionally in dire straits I shout out and there she is - panic over! Then I reflect how many details she has already thought of - everything is prepared, in position as I need it.
And wider than that, actually I depend on her for my survival from waking to going to sleep. She's there with me through my tough times - helping and encouraging. She enables the highlights of my life! She's my constant companion - and she does not seem to mind. In fact she likes to do it. Which is why I'm confident that she will, as she said well nigh 40 years ago, have and hold me until death parts us.
Of course I can be bolshy. I can refuse her help. I sometimes won't ask for her help; and in that case she doesn't force herself on me. I can and have been ungrateful and ungracious. I sometimes grimace when she stretches my muscles to keep me as mobile as possible, even though I know it's for my good. In a literal way through her I'm still alive and move and have my being. Mostly I am quite aware of how much I owe her and am full of gratitude.
It strikes me that there are a lot of parallels between the way Jane relates to me and the Holy Spirit's relationship with the believer. It is a personal relationship. There is a dynamic about it. I frequently grieve Him. He often surprises and delights me. One difference is that He proposed to me! Another is on His part, although He relates to me personally, it's not exclusive. The Holy Spirit - much as I love my wife - is infinitely greater in his scope. His activity is not restricted to caring for one person, or even one group of people.
As the great Jesuit poet Hopkins put it:
"There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs -
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings."
He has an infinite individual love, because He is God. And I'm grateful.